A Good Beer Blog


Have you read The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer - A Rant in Nine Acts by Alan and Max yet? It's out on Kindle as well as Lulu.

Maureen Ogle said this about the book: "... immensely readable, sometimes slightly surreal rumination on beer in general and craft beer in particular. Funny, witty, but most important: Smart. The beer geeks will likely get all cranky about it, but Alan and Max are the masters of cranky..."

Ron Pattinson said: "I'm in a rather odd situation. Because I appear in the book. A fictional version of me. It's a weird feeling."


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Pok -

The history may not matter to me much but it does matter that someone is tending to it and making sure the information is there when needed. Like the odd bolt or screw that we may have no current use for, it is wise to put it into the coffee can so that we know where to look when the need arises. The details of how historical brewers did their work is interesting for sure. When the homebrewer gets fed up with paying for high cost prepackaged mail ordered supplies (even if he/she can get them) then the question arises about how the old timers did it using relatively local supplies.

Bailey -

I thought Des's piece was excellent, as per.

At the moment, my immediate thought is that it is important to keep on top of the history because big brewers keep misusing it for marketing purposes. If they claim their (crappy) products are older or more authentic, and people swallow it, it gives them a legitimacy they don't really deserve. They get to invent the context in which their beers should be enjoyed.

In Germany, it's common for pubs or breweries to put something like "Seit 1563" on the menu. With a bit of digging, you can work out that's when the building was constructed, or when the town's first brewery opened. Cheeky.

Thanks again for the Farmhouse Ales tip, btw. A good read and I liked how quickly the authors put aside the sometimes circular history/style debates and got down to brass tacks: how are the ones you can drink today made?

Gary Gillman -

The history - and future e.g. as may be plotted by brewing technological or say hop-farming developments - are crucial - for me. I have always been interested in it, from the dark pre-Internet days until now. For me, it explains everything, from the palate of a beer, to its generic name, why it is made as it is, and why it might (often) be better than it is.

Just as an example, when conical fermenters came in, some suggested that their shape and function would tend to efface some of the traits of top-fermented beer. Indeed their use is very common today both in large and smaller operations. Whenever I have a chance to visit a brewery of any size, I always like to see if conicals are being used and if so, whether the brewer feels the taste may have altered from a time when they weren't used (if he was there). But I can see that this degree of detail will have no interest for many.

And so that's me. Others again will have a limited or no interest in brewing and beer history, and that's fine. It is perfectly okay to form your impression just from the glass before you. I am mindful in this regard of a famous writer who once said, when I want a good meal I want a good meal, not a history lesson. This was an English author writing after WW II at a time when English food writing was quite historical/literary in nature - that has changed today and the leading food writers and stars from what I can see focus on food without a historical perspective. Personally, I liked the long loving reminiscences of, say, Alexandria and its foods in the 1940's as Elizabeth David recounted them in her masterful works. But we are all a product of a certain time and more important a certain set of individual habits and interests.

I do feel that anyone who takes more than a casual interest in beer will learn some of its history, almost inevitably. But how far you want to go into it is entirely up to each person.


Stan Hieronymus -

Bailey - It's not only big brewers who misuse history for marketing purposes.

Gary Gillman -

Good point Stan. I've probably heard more inaccuracies from small brewers, and beer bar staff, than from large concerns. You get tired after a while of hearing that real ale should be cloudy because it was always like that before glass vessels became common - even though everything I've ever read in English beer history suggests the opposite to me for ale at any rate, as does the palate.

The problem with history is, the more you delve into it, the more questions arise. And the more people can disagree about what history reveals. If someone tells me porter at one time had a smoky taste, that reveals a certain amount of historical knowledge. But is he right? What did "empyreumatic" really mean...? Anyway, in for a penny, in for a pound, I say.


Bailey -

Stan -- you're right, of course, although I'm struggling to think of a worse example than the Stella Artois advert from a couple of years ago which implied they'd been brewing it in Leuven since 1366.

Steve Lamond -

Agree with Bailey. History should be represented accurately, opinions should not be presented as facts and facts should be correct and referenced! History can shape a drinking experience by providing the drinker with certain expectations and if the history is manufactured and expectations are not met, a brewer with a similar sounding but true history may suffer as being associated.

Also I think you're slightly confused re the Good Food Guide, its not produced by CAMRA (though they do publish "Good Pub Food Guide"). It in fact predates CAMRA http://www.thegoodfoodguide.co.uk/ and is an entirely separate organisation

Alan -

Oops! Thanks, Steve. Corrected. I was confused.

I do agree that brewing history is a valid inquiry - as is perfecting table hockey - but I rarely check the claims to longevity for any brewer as I assume them to be false or at best very partial claims and also I do believe they have little or nothing to do with what is in the bottle today - whether good or bad. The grains aren't the same, the processes are not the same, the hops are not the same and - most importantly - sanitation practices are nothing near the same.

That being the case, I think too much reliance on, as Gary says, what is inevitably one historical point of view can actual distract the drinking public and, for example, lead to mass illusions about what one should be tasting as opposed to what one is actually tasting. Again, whether the beer is good or bad.

Jeff Alworth -

Alan, I think you ought to have a side blog on language. I was just about to descend into a half-hour's research on the etymology, use, and philosophy of the word "matter" when it occurred to me that I'd better get to work instead. I have a sense that the semantics of this word allow for some unpacking, but I don't have the time to do it.

Alan -

Could be but I do think I elaborated a bit in last paragraph. But, like "sensible" or "basic", it is one of those words that comes from science of a certain point in the centuries and implies analogies which are now lost.

What else could I use to express that idea of "provides the context in which specific beers are appreciated"? Now you have me thinking...

Gary Gillman -

One view of "matter" would be to justify so to speak an acquired taste. It so happened malted grain was suited and available in some parts of the world to make an alcoholic drink. People wanted an alcoholic drink, and learned that malted grain made such a thing. Hops came along as a flavouring and certainly (initially) as a preservative agent. The result, beer, for everyone I know, was not instantly appealing. It took time to appreciate the taste, to learn why beer tastes as it does.

It's not enough to learn just about malt and hops and yeast. Knowing that in turn raises other questions. Why is some porter dark? What does porter mean? Why are some yeasts banana and clove-like? What is lager, where did that come from? Even people whose interest in beer will never go very far apart from drinking it often ask - I'd say it is the most-asked question: "what is the difference between ale and lager"? Very hard to answer without resort to history.


Gary Gillman -

All porter is dark. :)

I meant for my illustrative question to state, why is some beer dark?


Alan -

Yet none of those questions are answered by the sort of "brewery history" of the sort that Des was citing. And porter is dark because it is made with dark malts.

That need not lead into a history lesson, does it? I mean, I really do not know where lager really comes from in a detailed sense and, for all my interest in beer, don't really care. It does not make the beer tastier for me.

Reverse the question. Be the Buddhist. Is the beer in your glass today any better for the awareness of its historical antecedents? Or would the uncluttered mind better taste the beer?

Gary Gillman -

Well, I would say, not that it necessarily tastes better knowing all the background, but it gives me context, a starting point. "Oh okay, Guinness FES has a lactic tang because it represents porter when long aged in wood, I see now why it resembles wine as much as beer...".

I do think this leads in some cases to thinking it is "good". When the fundamental taste is one not easily gleaned, not intuitive as wine is, say (or is more), I think this background can clue you in to what is different and maybe special about the drink.


Gary Gillman -

Alan, just on the point of the kind of history Des de Moor was referring to, take for example something I learned a couple of years ago from an article in the magazine All About Beer. One of the ancestors of a brewery known for its classic Flanders red ale had studied in London in the later 1800's, apparently at porter breweries (then still a major style there). It can be inferred he was influenced by vatting and aging and this is why, perhaps, Flanders red ale is oak-aged and blended. It just adds more interest and possibly nails down why the palate is what it is.

And so initially I might think, hmmm an ale with a sourish edge seems "wrong" but okay, perhaps they were trying to emulate an aged porter, or a porter blended with old and young beer, and so it starts to make sense and now that I think on it, such beers are winy and accompany some foods very well...

I actually find I like the beers better when I know this kind of background. Now you might say, it doesn't make any sense, but given again that beer to begin with - even the fairly bland commercial examples each country has - is not an easy palate to acquire, this additional dimension adds a lot for me.


Jeff Alworth -

That need not lead into a history lesson, does it? I mean, I really do not know where lager really comes from in a detailed sense and, for all my interest in beer, don't really care. It does not make the beer tastier for me.

Reverse the question. Be the Buddhist. Is the beer in your glass today any better for the awareness of its historical antecedents? Or would the uncluttered mind better taste the beer?

Such catnip. I am the Buddhist, and I was unavoidably thinking of this all through the thick lens of my Buddhist views. In Buddhism, there's the very useful concept of "beginner's mind," or a mind free of mental elaborations and expectations. Pain is much worse because we fear it and react to it more strongly than the actual sensation warrants (and pain researchers have found some utility in meditation as a result). Things are boring because we've encountered them before. In beer, flavors become dulled by expectation and familiarity.

So on the one hand, there's the virtue of beginner's mind that a good taster takes to his pint glass. Agreed.

But I would argue that there's a further dimension that context provides and which can open up the flavors of beer. When a person unfamiliar with beer tastes it, she's immersed in flavors. The experience is pure. But she also may not notice flavors in the wash of newness. Many times I've been with newbies and pointed out a flavor in a beer--which I know as a phenol, say, or isoamyl acetate or something--and I see the bright expression of recognition come along when I say, "bananas?" I've been on the receiving end of this when I've been with experienced oenophiles or foodies, who walk me through my experience.

In those cases, context deepens the experience. Instead of an indistinct wash of flavors, my experience can be heightened if I know how to examine what I'm experiencing. (This, too, is a Buddhist technique.)

Which takes us to history. Can it likewise deepen experience? I guess I'll punt. My brain is wired to make sense out of things, and if I'm given a black beer and told, "that's a porter," I have a lesser experience than if I'm told. "Porters were first brewed in London 250 years ago, but if you stop to taste that acrid, burned sense, you're getting the black malt--that was an innovation in malting technique that came along a century later. Before that, they were made with brown malts--in fact, they were dark brown ales, not black." Now my nose is in the beer and I'm looking for the acrid and I'm wondering--what did the all-brown malt beers taste like? I am fully engaged with my porter in a way I could never be until I understood its full context.

"Matter" is probably an individual thing. I can't remember faces or names. Tell me something about yourself--you're from Chicago but you moved there from Indonesia when you were five--and then the name and face have a place to reside in the faulty vaults of my memory. With the story, the being in front of me becomes a person, someone I can remember. Beers are much the same way. If I don't understand the story of the beer, I have a much harder time relating to it. To me, histories matter a great deal.

Alan -

"...if I'm given a black beer and told, "that's a porter," I have a lesser experience than if I'm told. "Porters were first brewed in London 250 years ago, but if you stop to taste that acrid, burned sense, you're getting the black malt--that was an innovation in malting technique that came along a century later. Before that, they were made with brown malts--in fact, they were dark brown ales, not black..."

I think you have actually taken a leap and been sidetracked. Not all contextual knowledge is the same. I agree that careful drinking will open up new flavours. It is one of the things I like about beer most is that am able to parse the flavours in the way that I take apart arguments in law or ideas in poetry. I had an experience of that just yesterday in relation to a clause in a demolition contract in a careful review with a prospective signer to the deal.

But that is depth within the beer. If you are told porters were first brewed in London 250 years ago and then drink you have assigned to the person that has told you this information the power to make your mind up for you and distracted you from the actual beer to a theoretical one 100 years ago the taste of which, if we are honest, is not at all a certainty.

I relate best to a beer when I am cut adrift from external authority - which is consistent with my Scottish Presbyterianism when I think about it. I want the direct immersive experience when I am tasting. I still think beer history is an excellent thing. But it takes away, for me, from the appreciation of the beer if I overlap one with the other.

It is like my disinterest in getting to know craft brewers too well. I am going to like a friends beer more. I am also going to judge a beer more highly if I trust the back story. Example.

Jeff Alworth -

Ah, well now we're getting to the fine points. Your comment about external authority introduces a new wrinkle into the whole thing (or new, anyway, to my understanding of the topic).

We're now fully in the realm of personality, I think. I have no issue with external authority. It's not my experience that I've assigned anything. (Porter's actually a great example, too, because of the whole Shoreditch debate.) For me, the issue is the story. My actual experience with porter went like this: I tasted it and was confused (it was 1987). Then I learned that it was a beer invented by this guy in London of "three threads" of beer and sold to laborers for whom it was ultimately named. A few years back, I learned that this was quite likely not the case. The real story is murkier and we don't actually have enough info to know exactly the flow of causality that led to its rise. So now that's my new story.

When I was in grad school, I had this very cool prof--one of the two most pivotal educators I ever had--who rather breezily pointed out that the work of a good scholar is to provide the theories that advance the field long enough until they're proved wrong by the next generation. Although that's not how most scholars see their work, it's actually true. But the wrong stories matter no less.

All of which is to say that I'm a stories guy. Give me a beer, fine, but please, tell me its story, too. To go to Des's point, maybe you get it wrong here and there. What's twenty years among friends? For me, that greatly enhances my appreciation of the beer.

For me.

Des de Moor -

Glad to see my piece ultimately provoked such a lengthy and interesting discussion. I certainly don't think brewing history adds any weight to prescriptivism on contemporary beer styles, which are dynamic, evolving categories -- 'saison' as it is currently interpreted by many US craft brewers is a great example of this. History can't settle contemporary debates over style unless we want it to.

I guess what irks me is when breweries make a big deal of history and heritage but then demonstrate how shallow their commitment is by getting it so wrong. I'll have to ponder further about exactly how awareness of beer history can shape our appreciation of particular beers in the here and now!

Alan -

Thanks for commenting, Des! You know, in my non-beer life I am struck how much error and abstraction there is in the application of history. Breweries are great perpetrators. But I think it also fits in something of a natural tendency, too. We seem to need to make sure newly received facts harmonize into our existing overall narrative. We pick a level of specificity and round the edges to make sure the new knowledge fits.

With beer, the narrative is shaped by a tendency to suppose the past was purer even though we would never suggest such a thing in relation to public health or even other food sources. As a result, I think I may be doubly suspicious, supposing everything presented is compromised (even if the goal is good story telling) and shocked when I find an excellent presentation of history such as Doug Hoverson's Land of Amber Waters on Minnesota brewing mentioned by Stan in his follow up post.

Gary Gillman -

Alan, one point that hasn't come out, or not expressly, is that history allows us to taste something our forefathers knew. This is something that fascinates many, it provides a tangible, indeed sensory, link to the past. This is probably the most attractive part of the historical connection for most.

It's not so much that it was a golden age then - I take your point on that - but that we can recreate via historical knowledge an ancestral taste.

I know you have said that we can't be sure what beer tasted like then. This is true, yet I am convinced we can get pretty close, both by reading historical descriptions of beer taste and methods of brewing, but also in other ways. I will never forget reading an account by a member of the Durden Park Circle, a historical beer group in England active since the 1970's and devoted to recreating period recipes. They had created a pre-WW I porter. One of the members happened to have some when an elderly lady stopped by his home. This was in the 1970's and she would have been over 80. I'm recounting this is from memory but went much like this: wanting to keep things simple, he said to her, "It's like Guinness". She took a taste and replied, "No it's not; it's London Porter. I was in service [domestic help] during the first war and remember the taste". I always loved that story.


Martyn Cornell -

"Is the beer in your glass today any better for the awareness of its historical antecedents?"

No. Would the steak on your plate taste any more delicious if you knew the history of the Aberdeen Angus?

On the other hand, the history of the Aberdeen Angus breed is, while pretty unimportant, still – to some – interesting in its own right. The history of beer is the same: ultimately unimportant, but interesting to some - including me, obviously - even if it doesn't make the beer taste any better. And if you're going to talk about the history of anything, even something as ultimately minor as a particular breed of cattle - or beer - you have a duty, I believe, to make that history as accurate as possible.

So if beer history exists, and it does, then it really matters to me that beer history is right, or there's no point in relaying it: you might as well make stuff up. But if beer history didn't exist, it wouldn't be missed, any more than we miss "tea history".

Alan -

Recently I went in search of a book on the History of Ontario after a trip to Montreal in which I picked up a handy volume on that province. Apparently Ontario has no general history that needs setting out between one set of covers.